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At least 62 die as forest fires rage in Portugal

Image: Dozens of people have been killed in the blazes

At least 62 people have been killed in a number of forest fires in central Portugal, as temperatures passed 40C (104F).

The Portuguese government said many of the victims died in their vehicles as flames swept over a road between two towns in Pedrogao Grande.

Officials say a lightning strike is believed to have sparked the blaze.

The view of the blaze from the village of Mourisco
Image: The view of one of the blazes from the village of Mourisco

Interior Ministry official Jorge Gomes said at least 30 people were killed in their cars as they tried to flee the fire.

“The smoke cloud is very low, which does not allow helicopters and fire planes to work efficiently, but we’re doing everything possible and impossible to put out this fire, ” he said.

The EU has activated its civil protection efforts to help fight the blaze.

More than 350 soldiers have joined 700 firefighters in the effort to extinguish the flames.

Image: Smoke billows into the sky as the fires rage

About 54 people have been hurt, five of them seriously, including four firefighters and a child.

Portugal has declared three days of national mourning between now and Tuesday, with the government saying the fire has caused “an irreparable loss of human life”.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa said: “Unfortunately this seems to be the greatest tragedy we have seen in recent years in terms of forest fires.

“The priority now is to save those people who could still be in danger.”

This is believed to be the deadliest forest fire since 1966, when 25 Portuguese soldiers perished while tackling a blaze.

A forest fire is seen near Tojeira, Pedrogao Grande, in central Portugal, June 18, 2017
Image: Around 600 firefighters are battling the flames raging in the Pedrogao Grande area

Spain has sent two water-bombing planes to help their neighbour fight the fires.

A number of villages have been evacuated due to the danger, but the extent of damage to property is not yet clear.

The mayor of Pedrogao Grande, Valdemar Alves, said: “This is a region that has had fires because of its forests, but we cannot remember a tragedy of these proportions.

“I am completely stunned by the number of deaths.”

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    Heinz-Christian Strache
    Image: The FPO’s Heinz-Christian Strache is tipped to be deputy chancellor

    Austria is set to become the only western European country with a far-right party in government.

    The head of the conservative People’s Party (OVP), Sebastian Kurz, has struck a coalition deal with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

    The FPO will take charge of the foreign, interior and defence ministries, among others, while its leader, 48-year-old Heinz-Christian Strache, will be deputy chancellor.

    Mr Kurz, 31, will be the youngest leader in Europe. His OVP will run ministries including finance and justice.

    When the OVP won Austria’s election on 15 October it did so with a hard line on immigration – a policy which often overlapped with that of the FPO.

    The FPO was third, taking 26% of the vote.

    “Nobody has anything to fear,” said the FPO’s secretary general and Austria’s next interior minister, Herbert Kickl.

    Sebastian Kurz
    Image: Sebastian Kurz says he wants to increase security and combat illegal immigraton

    Mr Kurz held a joint news conference with Mr Strache and told reporters: “Our aims are quite clear.

    “We want to ease the tax burden for people, we want to strengthen our economy, which will bolster our social system.”

    Mr Kurz, known as ‘wunderwuzzi’ or ‘whizz-kid’, added: “And first and foremost we want to increase security in our country, including by combating illegal immigration.”

    While Mr Kurz has said his administration will be pro-European, both he and Mr Strache have expressed doubts about further social integration.

    Sebastian Kurz
    Image: Mr Kurz, 31, is Europe’s youngest leader

    The two men presented their agreement to Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Greens leader who narrowly beat the FPO in a presidential vote in 2015.

    Mr Van der Bellen, who has the right to reject ministers, has said a new government could be sworn in early next week if everything went to plan.

    Following their meeting, Mr Van der Bellen said they had agreed it was in Austria’s “national interest” to remain at the “centre of a strong European Union”.

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    The FPO’s success mirrors that of similar parties across Europe. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party is now the second-largest in the Netherlands, the Front National in France was involved in a run-off for the presidency in May and representatives from Germany’s AfD have entered the Bundestag.

    When the FPO was last in government, under the late Joerg Haider, other EU countries imposed sanctions on Vienna in protest.

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